As my minutes at MTV come to an end, I’d like to share some experiences about my time covering games here for all the aspiring or thriving gaming reporters out there.
Some thoughts about being a games reporter…
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop being a reporter. It’s not something I was born with, but it’s something I can’t shake.
I got my Master’s in journalism 10 years ago this May, right after getting my undergraduate degree. I was 22.
That degree was by no means essential, but it helped. It helped me take reporting seriously.
One of the best experiences I had in grad school was being assigned to be interviewed by a classmate. Every reporter should be the subject of someone’s reporting, to experience what it’s like to be quoted, to be referenced and to be summarized.
I spent the five years after getting my Masters’ going through career phases: I wanted to be a serious reporter about serious topics. I worked alongside other reporters whose zest to work the phones and chase stories intimidated me into thinking I’d chosen the wrong career. I left journalism and worked on entertainment documentaries at VH1. It took years for me to discover that going back to journalism was what I needed and that covering something that potentially frivolous like video games, could be a career that I found intellectually satisfying. It just needed me to trust my gut about what people would care to know about the games we play and the people around them.
I feel that I only became a games journalist, by profession, five years ago. I was 27. So that’s five years of figuring it out, five years of doing it. And only the last four were spent at MTV News covering games, which is where I think most people know me from.
One of the best experiences I had at MTV News was getting something wrong. It was a brutal day, one of my worst here. One evening, the news had broken that “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” was being rated AO and pulled from stores. I didn’t stir from the dinner where I was when I heard that. I went to bed without filing a story or even notifying my editors.
The next morning, I went to work burning from a scalding e-mail from my boss, wondering why MTV News was the only outlet without the story. We scrambled and posted a late story. I apologized to my editor. And then I apologized to him again, late in the day.
Sure, I learned lessons about timeliness and responsiveness. But that wasn’t the most instructive part.
After I apologized to my editor that second time, he turned to me and said, gently, “Stephen, of the 10 worst things I had to deal with today, that wasn’t even high on the list.” My editor was a smart man and this was one of the smartest things he had ever conveyed to me. My reporting failure about the “GTA” story may have been a problem for MTV News, but it was only to me that it was the day’s biggest problem. It was my professional pride that was going to be my best motivator, my own measure of my own standards that was going to best propel me to do the best work. As a reporter, I could just meet other people’s standards. But to do my best, I had to make sure I had my own high standards and that I met them.
Any reporter can get away with a lot of failure. Only they will truly know what their best effort was.
People try to categorize your reporting. It’s for the hardcore or the casual. It’s enthusiast or it’s for trade. I don’t believe those categories carry much meaning. The most important categories for me these last four years — whether I was reporting about E3, a new PSP game or what developers do with dead virtual corpses in shooter games — were “interesting” and “uninteresting.” As a reporter and as a reader, that’s my most important criterion.
About six years ago, I fell out of the running to get work for a soon-to-be-famous video game blog. About five years ago, my gaming pitches appeared to lose the confidence of an editor at Slate.com. I believe I was not the first choice for the games reporting job I got at MTV.
Today, I’m leaving that MTV job, which I think I’ve been pretty good at. Last year I was, for the second year in a row, invited to participate in a Slate roundtable of top gaming reporters and critics. And on May 4 I become the deputy managing editor of a famous video game blog.
So, young game journalists, please hone your craft. Please trust that your talent will eventually find you success. Please pick up the phone and work your stories.
And please keep believing that gaming journalism is a great profession.
I’m proud to be a part of it. And I look forward to what we’re all going to do next.